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How Thelma Re-Defines the Monstrous Feminine in Horror

In Carrie, Brian De Palma’s horror classic, Carrie White is an outsider plagued by an abusive mother and a gaggle of bullies. Following the onset of her first period, she starts to develop telekinetic powers, which enable her to take revenge against her oppressors. What Carrie presented in 1976 is harkened again forty years later by Joachim Trier, but to vastly different conclusions.

Trier’s 2017 film Thelma tells the story of a young woman moving to Oslo to start studying at university. While there, she struggles with loneliness, first love with a girl, Christianity, and strange new powers. Indeed, Thelma shares many similarities with Carrie, many of which have been written about widely by critics and film bloggers since its release. Both tell the stories of young women struggling to fit in with their peers, dealing with religious and over-bearing parents, and developing telekinesis. It would be easy to class Thelma as a continuation of this Carrie-esque genre of horror, but where Trier’s film really shines is in its ability to subvert our expectations of this genre, prompting us to question what we think we know about the female coming-of-age horror.

Female coming-of-age, and more specifically the concept of the monstrous feminine, has long been a popular theme explored in horror. Coined by film theorist Barbara Creed, the monstrous feminine refers to a sub-genre of horror films interested in confronting female transgression through the portrayal of women as dangerous creatures, or monsters. Films like Ginger Snaps (2000), Jennifer’s Body (2009), and Raw (2016) all fall into this category, documenting the transformation of a female character from unassuming girl to feminine monster. Horror loves combining female coming-of-age themes with the abject presence of something sinister and “other.” This intersection between the world of first loves and first periods and the world of cannibalism, telekinesis, and the undead provides endless material for horror writers.

Thelma follows in this tradition of the monstrous feminine, while also managing to skillfully subvert it. A major tenant of female-monster films is the element of fear imposed by said female-monster. In both Ginger Snaps and Jennifer’s Body, the female monsters kill high-school boys who uphold micro-level patriarchal power structures. In Carrie, Carrie White goes from being an outsider and victim of bullying to burning down her entire school, striking fear in anyone who crosses her path. “Coming of age” in these films mark a change not only in external powers, but also internal sensibilities. The female monster will turn evil by killing those around her, usually in some form of patriarchal backlash. Thelma is different.

As viewers, we don’t fear Thelma. None of the characters in the film fear Thelma, either (save her parents, but more on that later). While Thelma does cause harm in the film, it is never interpreted as intentional. In Carrie, we see Carrie actively utilize her powers during the iconic prom scene towards the end of the film, setting her entire high school ablaze and causing several deaths. Thelma similarly ends with a fiery death (Thelma’s powers set her father on fire), but we never see Thelma enter a manic kill-mode à la Carrie. She seems incapable of controlling her powers, mirroring her inability to express her emotions. So while her anger towards her father seems to cause his death, the suppression of this anger is what does the killing, not Thelma herself. In Thelma, fear exists in everything surrounding the monstrous feminine, not within the actual girl herself.

The question of who to fear in a horror film isn’t the only facet challenged by Thelma. Trust in relationships also carry a significant weight in the film. In Carrie, we see a clear power presentation of good versus evil, with Carrie acting as a victim to both her mother and to bullies. Thelma offers far more challenging depictions of parenthood. We know that Thelma’s parents restrict her independence, but their motives for this are in constant flux. Do they love her and care about her well-being, and that is why they control her? Or does the control come from fear, or even hatred? (After all, a young Thelma did cause the death of their infant son). The answer is likely as complicated as the question.

This complication of the parent-daughter roles in Thelma aids in the film’s destruction of the female-monster concept, as it introduces a world where we don’t know who to trust. The monstrous feminine is interested in the elements of womanhood which men are unable to relate to or understand, and in response, grow to fear. Thelma appears to follow in this tradition, portraying the masculine and the feminine as two distinct power dynamics at war with each other. The patriarchal masculine – embodied by Thelma’s father – controls and oppresses his daughter because he fears her. Not able to understand her power, he tries to kill her on several occasions, and settles with strictly controlling her to limit this power. Rather than engaging with her and attempting to understand her power (and also helping her to understand her own power), he adopts a patriarchal control over her. Thelma then represents the feminine, a young woman with a confusing and frightening nature which she cannot control, and which her father – who is meant to protect her – refuses to help her to understand. What plays out is an allegory of the masculine so terrified of the foreign feminine, that the only thing he knows how to do is crush it. Thelma killing her father, then, can be seen as freeing herself.

But is she free? Can she ever be? Here is where Thelma adds interesting new depth to the monstrous feminine canon, as the film’s message is far from the black and white of previous works within the genre. While Thelma could be understood as a contemplation on these power struggles, there are other factors at play which call for a richer investigation. Thelma is not your run-of-the-mill feminine monster, and Thelma is not a film that can be boxed into genre with set rules. From the start of the film, we are prompted to expect manipulation. What Trier presents us with is not only a subversion of the female coming-of-age story, but a subversion of the monstrous feminine horror genre which Thelma falls into.

In the first scene of the film, we see a young Thelma and her father hunting in the woods. When Thelma looks away, entranced by a deer, her father raises his rifle and takes aim at his daughter. We are brought to a sudden brink of expectation, expecting a brutal murder, but her father ultimately lowers his weapon. With this opening we are welcomed into the world of questioning and manipulation that is Thelma. We think the man is going to kill the girl, but he doesn’t. The film constantly gives us clues as to what it’s going to be about, only to negate them. Dangled in front of us is a tale of a first love, of discovering one’s sexuality, of religion and how that complicates these factors, and of growing up. But we are also presented with trademark signs of horror: an ominous flock of birds slamming into a window, the frightening sterility of a hospital; seizures, bloody noses, and slithering snakes. The cries of a lost baby haunt us.

Can we believe what we are seeing or hearing? Are the happenings in the film purely allegorical? Thelma has the ability to teleport other human beings, and her father chalks this up to feeling contempt for others, but we cannot be sure that this is the case. Thelma ultimately ends up together with her love interest, Anya, in a seemingly loving relationship – but can we believe this? Should we? Because the entirety of the film has been set up to deceive us, sending shocks at every turn, there is little cause to believe in this sunshine-and-rainbows ending. If Thelma were a clear-cut example of the monstrous feminine, we could interpret Thelma killing her father as a girl gaining freedom from an oppressive figure constantly trying to stifle her. But Trier has dropped clues from the very beginning of the film that nothing on screen should be trusted – and pre-existing ideas about the monstrous feminine are no different.

In her 1986 paper on the monstrous feminine, Barbara Creed declared the following:

“But the feminine is not per se a monstrous sign; rather, it is constructed as such within a patriarchal discourse which reveals a great deal about male desires and fears but tells us nothing about feminine desire in relation to the horrific” (Creed, 1986:70).

Thelma offers a new definition. The film’s final scene shows us exactly what its supposed female monster wants: to love and to be loved, and the freedom to do so. Thelma is a young woman living under unusual circumstances, and Trier does her justice by presenting her story in all its complexities; the film is not interested in reaching any conclusions. Thelma is the Carrie for a new generation of the monstrous feminine. Not a victim, not a monster, and more than just an allegory. She is human.

Bibliography

Creed, Barbara (1986). Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection. Screen, 27(1), pp. 44-71.

Creed, Barbara (1993). The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. Routledge:Oxon.

CategoriesFeatures Issue 25